Two years after taking office, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has decided to reshuffle his government again. Unlike in spring 2020, when Zelenskyy replaced the ambitious Oleksy Honcharuk with the less well-recognized Denys Shmyhal as prime minister, this time the reshuffle has been rather slow and gradual. That ongoing process is making sitting government ministers and their retinues nervous and may be prompting many of them to, for now, prioritize self-preservation over pursuing any long-overdue reform initiatives. The ministerial musical chairs began last winter and will likely extend into the fall. With the carefully calculated shakeup, President Zelenskyy is apparently preparing the ground for his reelection campaign in 2024, despite promising in 2019 that he would serve for only one term. His recent personnel decisions may also have been influenced by Western creditors and partners, which demand reforms and steps against corruption. Most conspicuous has been the replacement of powerful interior minister Arsen Avakov, which may entail implications for national security.
Finance Minister Serhy Marchenko, who oversees talks on much-needed loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has had an especially hard time. Rumors of imminent dismissal have haunted Marchenko almost since his appointment in March 2020, prompting him to deny them in numerous interviews last fall and to frantically reshuffle the chiefs of the endemically corrupt customs service (Mof.gov.ua, September 8, 29, 2020). The efforts apparently paid off, and Marchenko is staying on for now.
Over the winter, Zelenskyy’s team picked Yury Vitrenko, a former executive director of the oil and natural gas firm Naftogaz Ukrainy, to combine the posts of first deputy prime minister and energy minister. It was rumored at some point that he could eventually replace Shmyhal (Liga.net, December 16). But the parliament, though dominated by Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People party (SoP), refused to endorse the ambitious Vitrenko, choosing instead Herman Halushchenko, a former head of the state nuclear power company Energoatom who became energy minister last April (Slovo I Dilo, April 29). Vitrenko took over as chair of Naftogaz, although probably not for long, as the National Agency on Corruption Prevention questioned his appointment due to a conflict of interest (Nazk.gov.ua, June 15).
In May, the presidential office replaced Ihor Petrashko with Oleksy Lyubchenko as economy minister, Vladyslav Krykly with Oleksandr Kubrakov as infrastructure minister, and Maksym Stepanov with Viktor Lyashko as health minister. Lyubchenko, who serves concurrently as first deputy to Shmyhal, had worked in the tax service since the 1990s, and he was appointed as tax chief last year. Lyubchenko was apparently rewarded for improved tax collection—an important achievement during the COVID-19 crisis. Kubrakov, a former IT entrepreneur chairing the state road company Ukravtodor, was in charge of an ambitious road-building program backed by Zelenskyy, who instructed Kubrakov to curb corruption in infrastructure as minister. Stepanov fell out of favor apparently because of a slow coronavirus vaccination campaign and corruption allegations, so he was replaced with his deputy and former chief sanitary doctor, Lyashko (Ukrinform.ua, May 18).
Avakov, who had served as head of the notoriously corrupt and unwieldy Ukrainian Ministry of Interior under two presidents and four prime ministers since early 2014, submitted his resignation on July 13, providing no reason. It was speculated that the United States asked Avakov to resign, as he had met with US envoy George Kent on July 12 (Segodnya.ua, strana.ua, July 13). A plausible explanation was offered by media outlet Zerkalo Nedeli’s sources at the interior ministry, who said Zelenskyy and Avakov simply tired of each other (Zerkalo Nedeli, July 13). Avakov may have grown weary of the perpetual uncertainty regarding his position ever since Zelenskyy’s election as president in 2019; upon taking office, the latter almost immediately made clear that he would not spare Avakov, seen as a stranger by the president’s team and disliked by civil society. Over his long ministerial career, Avakov was involved in numerous corruption scandals; botched police reforms; failures to investigate several sensational murders (including of international journalist Pavel Sheremet in 2016); and the controversies surrounding the incorporation into the interior ministry of the Azov battalion (which fought against Moscow-backed “separatist” forces in Donbas starting in 2014, but has been criticized in some quarters for attracting volunteers espousing extremist far-right views). On the other hand, Zelenskyy respected Avakov’s experience and was probably grateful to Avakov for his refusal to back Petro Poroshenko’s bid for reelection as president in 2019.
Zelenskyy replaced Avakov with Denys Monastyrsky, who was endorsed by the parliament on July 16. Monastyrsky, a lawyer, was elected to the legislature on SoP’s list in 2019, and he became chairperson of the parliamentary committee on law enforcement. Before that, he served as an assistant to lawmaker Anton Herashchenko, now a deputy interior minister. Herashchenko himself has been Avakov’s faithful lieutenant for many years, so Monastyrsky and Avakov are probably not strangers (UNIAN, July 16). Presenting Monastyrsky to his subordinates, Zelenskyy declared that the minister and his ministry should be trusted (Interfax-Ukraine, July 16), probably implying that Avakov had lost his trust.
Managing a behemoth of a ministry, which commands the border troops and the National Guard, among numerous other law enforcement agencies, Avakov must have inspired awe, suspicion and probably jealousy, as numerous mid-career government officials and even several ministers were rumored to be his protégés. Monastyrsky is evidently expected to carefully unbundle that formidable political machinery in order to make Ukraine’s law enforcement bodies susceptible to change and easier to reform. David Arakhamia, who chairs the SoP faction in parliament, said the State Border Guard Service and the National Guard, and also probably the State Migration Service, would be separated from the Ministry of Interior. He said Avakov was against such a separation. Regarding Avakov’s future, Arakhamia suggested that he could become another deputy to Prime Minister Shmyhal (Liga.net, July 17).
During his visit to Kyiv on July 13, US State Department representative George Kent also met with Defense Minister Andry Taran (Mil.gov.ua, July 14). Coincidentally or not, Taran has been mentioned by local media among the three people whom Zelenskyy’s team apparently plans to drop next, along with Justice Minister Denys Malyuska and Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko (Hromadske.radio, , Zerkalo Nedeli, July 13). Parliamentary speaker Dmytro Razumkov confirmed recently that at least three members of the Shmyhal cabinet could be replaced in the fall (Interfax-Ukraine, July 16). While the Financial Times reported that Central Bank governor Kyrylo Shevchenko, who has served in this position since July 2020, could also be replaced (Financial Times, July 20). Political shakeups in Kyiv look to be far from over.
Read the original text at The Jamestown Foundation.